North Star Annual Brunch Speech 2010
by Ken Danford 

I am thrilled to begin by saying that North Star is in really good shape right now. We have more members than ever, even more than I thought we could have at this time. This year’s rush of members (over 50 new families) and the encouraging set of people investigating North Star for next year, have included many kinds of people, but perhaps best understood through one 14 year-old boy who wrote the following introductory letter:

Dear Mr. Danford

There are many reasons why I desire to go to North Star, first off it has many interesting subjects as opposed to the public school classes that I found dull and repetitive and frankly boring (plus the food is god awful), and the homework was far too “important” and time consuming. Secondly I have problems with writing (as well as some math) I dislike it to the point where I shut down from stress. If I am functioning under my own direction I can work properly and comfortably. Thirdly and finally I appreciate freedom and I don’t get it at the middle school. I think North Star will be able to provide me with the freedom I so strongly desire. I will be able to work on my academic shortcomings and pursue my interests.

P.S. I do believe that I can provide certain materials I saw listed in the pamphlet wish list. I have many of those and what I don’t have I can find.

Another example of who we are for comes from a Parent Introductory Letter regarding her daughter who was angrily failing 9th grade for the second time:

As you already know, the decision to homeschool wasn't an easy one for me. Actually without the help of North Star it wouldn't be possible. Our daughter has definitely been the driving force behind this decision but I can honestly say that I am not only excited about this journey, but hopeful.  

I would really like to see her try new things and learn for herself that she is a smart, fun, young woman with so much to offer to the world. I would like for her to enjoy learning again, and to be with adults and learners whom she respects and show her the same consideration. Selfishly I am also hoping that our relationship as parent/teen will improve as well.  

I am happy to report that each of these teens and families is embracing North Star, and one way we know is that we hear from them a report of a curious emotional state. The teens can’t quite identify it at first, as it is something they never experienced before: sadness, or at least ambivalence, for snow days and vacations. This story is common: one of the first impacts we have on families is the cessation of the daily battle about getting up in the morning, because kids want to come to North Star. You will hear in detail from Thomas Erwin, Wren Williams, and Jaime Kaplan in more detail about why this is the case. The changes they report for themselves and their families are moving, but they are also common at North Star. We provide a safe, respectful, and interesting environment, and we facilitate (or sometimes just witness) meaningful transformations.

As we celebrate these individual stories today, I want to take a moment to clarify how we see North Star’s mission to be larger, to be a model for social justice and social change. (if you are Glenn Beck fan, that’s your cue to walk out now!) First, I want to stress that North Star welcomes everyone, and that from the moment Joshua and I conceived North Star through our 14 years of operation, we have never turned away a single family. This means, for starters, accommodating families in financial need, thanks to the support of people like yourselves and events like this one. But it means much more: it means providing hope and support to every concerned, disillusioned, or desperate family.

It means, to some people’s horror, that North Star does not really have an Admissions Policy. We work with every situation that walks in our door to the best of our ability. And while some cases are straightforward, many are not. We welcome teens who don’t see themselves as learners, and teens who have never felt safe in a school-like social environment. We welcome teens who arrive angry at adults, especially authority figures, including their parents. We welcome teens with ADD, ADHD, anxiety, depression, Asperger’s, and every other label or diagnosis in common usage. We do not screen families for whether we think they can be “good homeschoolers,” whatever that might mean.  

A second way that North Star’s mission and vision is larger than serving its current members well is demonstrating to our mainstream culture that there is another way to approach one of the most stressful issues on the modern American family—college—both in terms of admissions and in terms of paying for it. Teens worry about getting accepted; parents worry about whether their teens are preparing themselves for it; everyone worries about paying for it, whether that means major sacrifices, extra jobs, delaying retirement, or long-term student loans that may carry into adulthood.  

What we have learned isn’t so much a solution to this problem as a simple truth that already exists but isn’t well-known. We at North Star, (and the homeschooling community across the country as well) see teens leave high school and use our local community colleges, particularly HCC and GCC, when they are 15-17 years old. These institutions are both welcoming and superb! Teens who have felt constrained in high school love the atmosphere of mixed-age adult classes with professors they have chosen for classes that interest them. These colleges offer excellent support and long-term vision for their students. Aside from community colleges, we see teens audit courses at our local Five Colleges. Teens who live well outside of school, do interesting things, and take some college courses as a way to pursue formal academics end up as mature, well-prepared, and appealing four-year college applicants, who incidentally have gone on to all of the Five Colleges and many others across the country. Further, they move on with one or two years worth of credit as well, cutting that monstrous financial burden in half, and even eliminating it if they choose a state university—all while having the freedom to enjoy their teen years. Happy, healthy teens who get into four-year colleges with manageable finances? Is this America? Well, yes, it is. With homeschooling, North Star, and community colleges, any family can opt out of stressful mainstream schooling and find sanity. The solution already exists, and we really need no new laws and no new programs to make this available for more families.  

Working with all families, and offering a solution to the most stressful aspect of family life today gives North Star a deep sense of purpose and a commitment to social change. I am delighted that groups in Hadley, Worthington, and even Philadelphia are exploring our model to consider how they might utilize some of our approach. Your support means so much to our current members, who are engaged in changing their lives, and it means so much to our organization, which holds out hope for immediate and profound change to every family in our vicinity and to those examining our model from afar. Thank you for your curiosity and your generosity today.